Tuesday, January 12, 2010

McGwire as a proxy for the steriod discussion

Surprise! Another 90's slugger took steroids! (Topic for another post: what does the existence of "The Steroid Era" do for Edgar Martinez' Hall of Fame candidacy?)

I understand people are tired of this. USSMariner and Fangraphs don't bother to mention it. Standard news outlets are reporting it, but it will go away tomorrow. People in my Facebook feed are posting stuff about Conan O'Brien and the Haitian earthquake, but the McGwire story is absent.

This isn't exactly News, as much as confirmation. People have long suspected McGwire of using PEDs (and not just Andro), and he's had paltry Hall of Fame support because of these suspicions. And because so many big names have admitted or been caught using PEDs, McGwire's admission just makes him normal. Graham at Lookout Landing can't get angry about McGwire. Fine.

I'm still bothered by it. Not destroy-my-love-of-baseball bothered. Not ruin-my-day bothered. I'm not even angry. But I do care. Here's why:

Steroids were against the rules. Even though there was no testing policy in place, steroids and other illegal drugs were banned by Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1991. If you used steroids, you broke the rules.

Taking PEDs is cheating. Sport is a quintessentially human activity. PEDs diminish athletes' humanity, because they make the athlete something closer to a machine than a human being au naturale. To quote Michael Sanders (of the Presidents Council on Bioethics):
It is one thing to hit 70 home runs as the result of disciplined training and effort, and something else, something less, to hit them with the help of steroids or genetically-enhanced muscles. Of course the role of effort and enhancement will be a matter of degree. But as the role of the enhancement increases, our admiration for the achievement fades. Or rather, our admiration for the achievement shifts from the player to his pharmacist. This suggests that our moral response to enhancement is a response to the diminished agency of the person whose achievement is enhanced. The more the athlete relies on drugs or genetic fixes, the less his performance represents his achievement. At the extreme, we might imagine a robotic, bionic athlete who, thanks to implanted computer chips that perfect the angle and timing of his swing, hits every pitch in the strike zone for a home run. The bionic athlete would not be an agent at all; "his" achievements would be those of his inventor. According to this account, enhancement threatens our humanity by eroding human agency. Its ultimate expression is a wholly mechanistic understanding of human action at odds with human freedom and moral responsibility.
Read the full paper here.

Peer, fan, and media pressure do not exempt players from personal responsibility.
None of us is an island. We all come from somewhere, grow out of a set of circumstances, are influenced and limited by our environments. I think we often overestimate our ability to transcend our circumstances. I don't condemn McGwire for doing what all the fans, his fellow players, the league and the media, implicitly or explicitly, were telling him to do: "hit as many homeruns in a season as you can, whatever it takes, even if it means PEDs." But I do believe in real human agency. That taking PEDs was so easy, that the system was gamed to reward players who took them--these are not McGwire's doing. We, as fans, bear responsibility for that. But McGwire still made choices, and unless we believe that EVERY player took steroids, we can say that some players made different choices. Hence, McGwire could have refrained.

I will give McGwire credit for coming forward himself, for admitting, before someone produced damning evidence, that he used banned steroids. I give him credit for realizing that his actions affected others: his family, the commissioner, the Maris family, and the fans. He clearly regrets his decisions, and it clearly pains him to have let people down. On a personal level, I know firsthand how hard it is to admit to people you love that you have let them down, even betrayed their trust.

But I also give McGwire "credit" for taking steroids in the first place. And I do think it matters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Took me time to read the whole article, the article is great but the comments bring more brainstorm ideas, thanks.

- Johnson